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How to Manage Anxiety in the Face of Uncertainty

Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC

As I write this, the shutdown of the country has been extended through April 30, 2020, and while I am hopeful life will return to normal sooner rather than later, I am by no means counting on it. March 2020 will no doubt go down as one of the most anxiety provoking months in any of our collective recollection. I have worked diligently with my clients to help them manage their anxiety even as the nature of the services I provide shifted from in-person to teletherapy utilizing online video conferencing.

I use Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) as my primary theoretical orientation in nearly all of my work with my clients. I also use it to manage my own irrational thoughts and feelings. I strive to practice my Rational Disputations and Rational Coping Statements as consistently as possible, and I encourage my clients to do the same. There can be no expectation to practice REBT perfectly since such a demand is inherently irrational, however when we work to consistently practice REBT, we will likely experience a significant reduction in the frequency, intensity, and duration of our irrational emotional consequences, which include fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.

At the core of any of our COVID-19 anxiety is uncertainty about the future, from concerns about the duration of daily life disruptions to fear for the health of safety of ourselves and those for whom we care the most. From an REBT perspective, uncertainty about COVID-19 (our Activating Event), cannot make us feel fear and anxiety (our Consequence). Rather it’s through our appraisal and evaluation of the uncertainty (our Belief about the Activating Event), that we make ourselves feel about the uncertainty. We cause ourselves emotional disturbances when we turn our healthy preferences into rigid demands and catastrophize discomfort. If we are making ourselves anxious about the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are demanding certainty out of a scenario that is unknown and largely outside of our control. We are understandably uncomfortable with the uncertainty and the disruption to our lives, but when we tell ourselves that the discomfort is unbearable and that we must have comfort and control, then we will do anything we can to make ourselves feel comfortable. This can include hoarding supplies, entertaining conspiracy theories, expressing rage to our loved ones or on social media, or even abusing alcohol and drugs.

Just to be clear, I am by no means suggesting we be indifferent and nonchalant about the threat of COVID-19 to our collective health and safety. I am merely proposing we look at the uncertainty of COVID-19 and all of the other aspects of our lives that are outside of our control through the lense of rational, balanced, and preferential thought and emotion. Yes, we want to know when things will return to normal, but we cannot prove that we must know, nor can we prove that the discomfort we are feeling about being uncertain and vulnerable is unbearable. We can bear the discomfort of not knowing even if we would strongly prefer to be comfortable and have some level of assurance that life will return to normal. Both optimism and pessimism are irrational. Rational thought is realistic and flexible thought. I am hopeful that I will not be significantly negatively impacted by COVID-19 and that the disruptions of the pandemic will be over sooner rather than later, but I can gracefully and courageously accept that I may be affected to some extent and that it may last longer than I would care for it to. Through this type of thought process, I am making myself feel rational and healthy concern, frustration, annoyance, disappointment, and even sadness, but not giving into anxiety and fear, nor hopelessness or rage.

To learn more about REBT, please contact me directly to schedule a consultation with Symmetry Counseling.

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